Dáil Éireann - Volume 443 - 16 June, 1994

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Harassment of Irish Fishermen.

21. Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for the Marine the steps, if any, he is taking to protest about the harassment and intimidation of Irish fishing boats and their crews by foreign trawlers; whether he has raised the matter at European Union level; and the measures, if any, he proposes to take to deal with the issue.

31. Mrs. T. Ahearn asked the Minister for the Marine the action, if any he has taken to protect the Irish gill-netters whose equipment and fishing gear has allegedly been damaged by French trawlers; if his attention has been drawn to a recent such incident; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Minister for the Marine (Mr. Andrews): I propose to take Questions Nos. 21 and 31 together.

I assure Deputies that I take a very grave view of any interference with the lawful activities of Irish fishermen. Close liaison is maintained between the Department and the Navy in mounting preventative patrols in areas of contention. The Department of the Marine investigates all incidents of alleged harassment reported to it and receives reports from the Naval Service. Signed statements outlining the nature of the incidents are sought and if the Department believes that there have been malicious or dangerous actions a strong formal complaint is conveyed via the Department of Foreign Affairs to the flag State of the vessels involved.

In many cases, however, the alleged incidents were in the hours of darkness, making identification of the vessel or vessels [2100] involved difficult or impossible. On other occasions there have been allegations that foreign vessels have trawled through the gear of Irish boats engaged in gill-netting, one such being the incident to which Deputy Ahearn referred. In some instances, however, nets have been damaged while unattended and it has been impossible to know whether the damage was the result of accidental or deliberate action or which vessel might have been responsible.

Deputies will appreciate the absolute importance of hard evidence in such cases. Where such evidence exists, the matter will be pursued to the utmost. In a number of cases the Navy boarded foreign vessels and took statements from the skippers but there has been insufficient evidence to warrant their detention.

I have consistently expressed deep concern to ministerial colleagues at EU Council level and on Friday last took the opportunity of raising the latest episodes with my French opposite number at the Fisheries Council. He indicated a willingness to take firm action against those who could be proven culpable; that is the problem — provability, culpability.

At a practical level, a framework has been put in place whereby the officials in the Department have ongoing contact with the control authorities in each member state, particularly those with fishing rights in Irish waters. Every alleged incident is reported immediately. As the Deputies will be aware from previous statements to the House, the appropriate legal form of redress in cases of collision outside our territorial waters is by way of a civil action. Ships moving within our territorial waters are governed by the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea, 1972.

Mr. Sheehan: Will the Minister agree that civil action will be a lengthy and expensive process especially when taken outside our jurisdiction? Why was it not possible for the fishery protection vehicle to arrest the vessel which caused the havoc and take it into the jurisdiction of an Irish court? The vessel's name and [2101] identity were known and there was clear evidence of damage caused. It is rather like closing the door when the horse has bolted. If one is trying to take this case to a court outside our jurisdiction the probability of obtaining justice is not good.

Mr. Andrews: In so far as it is within my competence I will try to facilitate the Deputy. I have a rather long supplementary reply but I do not want to cause tedium by reading it. I can give the Deputy additional information afterwards and I undertake to write to him specifically in relation to the incident which, I understand, occurred on 1 June when the skipper of the Irish Boy Evin alleged that a French vessel, the Agora, deliberately towed through his gear causing damage to the nets which will cost £2,000 to repair. The Agora was boarded by the Naval Service some hours later. The skipper made a statement denying the allegation — this was another difficulty — that he had not seen any marker buoys and had not been fishing in the area of the alleged incident. The boarding officer concluded that there was not enough evidence to pursue the matter further. The problem is we need corroborative evidence; first class evidence is by way of seeing it at first hand, or by way of video, if that evidence is acceptable to the court.

The legal position in relation to interference is that collisions at sea are governed by the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea, 1972. The latter are implemented internationally on a uniform basis as enshrined in the Collision Regulations (Ships and Watercraft on the Water) Order, 1984. The regulations apply only within Irish territorial waters. Offences committed by foreign vessels outside our jurisdiction are dealt with by informing the relevant flag State and asking that appropriate action be taken — which I did in this instance — and that the results of the action be communicated to me in due course. Where the identity of the offending boat is known, initiation of proceedings under civil law is the appropriate [2102] means of redress. The Department of Foreign Affairs may be able to assist in tracing the owners of the foreign registered vessel.

The difficulty with the application of the collision regulations, in so far as breaches by foreign vessels within our jurisdiction are concerned, is that initiation of legal proceedings requires that a summons be served on the master or on the owner or his agent within our jurisdiction. As the Deputy will appreciate, this has proved impossible in most cases. This is a serious matter. There is a strong principle on the high seas that you must be allowed to pass and repass in freedom and allowed to get on with the business of pursuing your livelihood without interference. I take exception to what happened to the Boy Evin. If other cases are brought to my attention I will make representations at the highest level. I undertake to do everything I can to ensure that Irish fishermen are allowed to fish in safety and freedom without interference.

Mr. Sheehan: Will the Minister agree that our case is weakened considerably by the fact that Ireland has not signed the International Law of the Sea Treaty?

Mr. Andrews: It has nothing to do with that Convention. Sometimes the law, national or international, can be an ass. It is a matter of evidence in my opinion and in that of people more competent in this area than I.

Mr. McGinley: There is consensus in the House on the potential seriousness of such incidents at sea. I know the Minister and the Department are monitoring the situation. What support is available from the Department of Foreign Affairs when investigating such incidents?

Mr. Andrews: The legal section of the Department of Foreign Affairs gave advice in 1990 on international law on the relatively limited circumstances in which action can be taken against vessels engaged in harassment or dangerous navigation or manoeuvres. Most importantly, [2103] under international law, ships on the high sea are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the flag State. It is ultimately for the flag State to exercise jurisdiction over ships flying its flag. In the event of collision or any other incident of navigation concerning a ship on the high seas, action should only be taken by the flag State or the State in which the person involved is a national. No arrest or detention of the ship, even as a measure of investigation, may be ordered by any authorities other than those of the flag State.

Intervention by Irish Navy vessels might be justified as a last resort if actions, collisions or rammings are deliberately perpetrated and could be shown to have constituted an illegal act. That comes back to the whole evidential aspect of this problem. Normally, the first step would be an approach through the usual diplomatic channels seeking assurances from the flag State that incidents, details of which we should furnish, would be immediately investigated and appropriate action taken.

If our initial approach did not get a satisfactory response we could warn that in future we would take action to protect our nationals from the risk of serious injury or loss of life. This would, however, present problems in proving that the flag State had clearly failed to take appropriate action against those involved. Identification of the boats involved is essential to the pursuit of redress either through legal process or through representations to the appropriate authorities of the flag State.

It is an extremely difficult problem. The advice given by the legal section of the Department of Foreign Affairs clearly outlines the difficulties involved and the difficulties for our fishermen in pursuing their livelihood with any sense of safety. I undertake to follow up any such incidents at the highest level to ensure the safety of fishermen to pursue their livelihood without interference.